Help! My exam is in 3 days’ time and I haven’t studied for it. What should I do?

jameskennedymonash Beat Exam Stress

First, relax.

The priority at this late stage is that you enter the examination hall well-rested, well-fed and with an appropriate level of stress.

1. Sleep early every night

  • Go to bed before 10pm (or 9pm with an exam the next day)
  • Wake up naturally. If you’re waking up too late, go to sleep at 7pm.
  • Avoid backlit screens for one hour prior to sleeping. Backlit screens emit light in the 484-nanometre range, which excites melanopsin in the retinal ganglion cell photoreceptor. This disrupts your circadian rhythm and keeps you awake!

2. Eat healthily

  • Eat regular meals at regular times.
  • Eat plenty of fruit. (Five per day.)
  • Drink plenty of water.

3. Get some lighter exercise

  • Avoid exhausting sports around exam time (e.g. rugby).
  • Do more walking, jogging, and lighter sports at exam time (e.g. badminton).
  • Drink plenty of water(!) Aim to drink 3 litres per day.

Research has shown that you perform difficult tasks (such as a Chemistry exam) much better under moderately relaxed conditions. The famous Yerkes-Dodson curve illustrates this beautifully.

The Yerkes–Dodson law is an empirical relationship between arousal and performance level. Source: Uni of Minnesota
You want to be on top of that blue curve.

More information about the Yerkes-Dodson curve.

Light exercise will help you to position yourself at the tip of that blue curve, which will optimise your state of mind for learning as much as possible in the few days you’ve got left.

Second, do targeted revision.

4. Mise en place (get everything ready)

5. Spend 3½ hours doing a practice examination

  • Spend 3½ hours doing the exam in semi-exam conditions.
  • Mark it immediately afterwards.
  • Keep it for next time: you’ll use the incorrect questions to guide your theory revision (step 6).

6. Spend 3½ hours reading & annotating your textbook

  • Read and annotate the textbook chapters relating to questions you got wrong.
  • DON’T READ YOUR NOTES. Read the textbook instead: it’s much clearer.
  • Re-do those questions now you’ve learned the theory behind them.
  • Follow steps 1-4 on How to use a Textbook: 6 Rules to Follow. This includes making vocabulary lists and beautiful, clear theory notes to go on your wall.
  • Repeat steps 5 and 6 (in this article) every day. (Study at least 7 hours per day.)

Finally, get help.

7. Get help!

  • Contact your teacher with any questions you have; exam content you don’t understand or worries you have about the exam.
  • Talk to a friend if you’re stressed about the exam.
  • Check out the resources below if your stress levels are still too high.

8. More resources

31 thoughts on “Help! My exam is in 3 days’ time and I haven’t studied for it. What should I do?

  1. Excellent tips.
    I’m curious if exams are different in your area. You mention studying for at least 7 hours a day. Frankly, that’s impossible for me. I have three exams this week, yet I still have all of my regular classes (5-9 hours per day). I’d have to stay up until 11 pm just to study for the exam, not including time to review the material for ongoing classes.
    Do you have time off from your regular classes when exams come around? Also, is a 3.5 hour exam the norm? Most of our exams are 1 hour or less.

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    1. Our examinations are 2.5 hours long in Victoria state. I advocate studying for 3.5 hours at a time, which includes enough time to mark the paper and find relevant theory notes in the textbook for concepts you didn’t get right.

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  2. I had a student who told me she studied till 3 AM, got up at 6 and studied some more, then wondered why she cratered her 8 AM exam. I told her she’d have done better getting a good night’s sleep.

    Cramming is useless. If you don’t keep pace with the material as it’s presented, trying to cram it all in at the last minute won’t do it. It’s like training for a marathon by sitting around, then putting in a full day on the treadmill the day before the marathon. Skimming over the material to refresh your memory is a whole different thing.

    Oh, I had an on-line test bank with answers. One student told me she was disappointed to get a C. I asked her if she tested herself, and how she did. “Oh, I got about three-quarters right……”

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  3. I had 4 weeks to study for 4 literature exams for university. My first exam is this Thursday, the next on Friday, then the last two on Tuesday and Wednesday of the following week. I have one and a half days left to study for the Thursday exam and slightly longer for the Friday one. They’re all essay exams (two essays in two hours, from a list of essay questions)

    I told myself back a month ago that I was going to study hard. I spent the first week looking over past papers for the key themes etc. (part of that time was because it was Easter, and because I was out with family etc.) At the end of the week, I realised I had three weeks left, and I hated myself for having taken so long just to sort out what themes would come up.

    Three weeks to go. I listed about 20 themes per exam, and told myself I’d study about 4 per day. The first day, I covered probably 1-2. I went to bed feeling useless.

    I kept trying to sit down and study, but I kept getting distracted. It was a vicious cycle: I’d think about studying and all I had to do, feel overwhelmed, then take longer than I wanted to get the work done, not reach my goal for that day, and go to bed hating myself.

    Yesterday, I had a revision session at university. Someone asked the tutor if 4 topics was reasonable per exam for revision, and he agreed that it was. I realised that I could have just studied a few topics per exam and I’d be okay. I went home feeling stupid, and realised that when I looked back over the little work I’d done, I hadn’t even covered enough for that. I wasn’t prepared enough for ANY of my 4 exams.

    I have two days before my first exam. It’s on my 21st birthday, which is even worse. I hate myself, I feel like a complete idiot, and although I’m trying to get through about 4 topics a day so I can be prepared a little, I keep feeling sick and terrified because I know I’m not going to make it, and it’s all my fault. All I want is for all this to end. I can’t cope. So far today, I’m on track to complete just a quarter of what I wanted to today. Once again, I’m a failure.

    I’m panicking so much. I can’t even get through enough for this one exam, let alone be ready for the following one, which is going to be even harder. And then, I’ve got to go through it all over again before I can be finished.

    I feel like something is wrong with me. I can never bring myself to study. I procrastinate with everything, even things I like, and even going to bed, I put off. I can’t focus and I haven’t felt this low in a long time. I just don’t know how I’m going to get through the next week in one piece, and I don’t know what to do.

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    1. This is literally the story of my life too. I have three days until my psychology exam, 4 days until biology. Ive wasted so much time on youtube and even when i have revised I spent the whole day just on a tiny section of ONE topic out of the six i have to learn. I think my problem is that im not using my time efficiently when studying and I don’t summarise well. From what ive read that must b what you struggle with as well. Glad I can relate to someone

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    1. I have 5 days for my university exam . I didn’t do any past papers. only note reading I done. so I feel very big fear for exam.I am in confuse. my chest also healing. plz help me to take A for exam.

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  4. Just came across this today, i hate myself for trading the time for study doing useless things, i have an incomplete project a test in 3 days and others after that i know 25 percent only am panicking…

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